Archaeology Students Uncover Clues to the Ohio Valleys Ancestral Past

A Student-Led Dig This Summer Leads to Discoveries near 16th Century Algonquian site that point to earlier habitations, historic instances of disease and climate change.

Date: 8/19/2017 2:00:00 PM

By: Jonathan Goolsby
Contact: Julie Campbell-Holmes
Phone: (513) 509 - 1114
Photos by Jonathan Goolsby

MARIEMONT, Oh. — Under a quiet, residential bluff in a Cincinnati suburb, overlooking the picturesque Little Miami River, there’s been a flurry of activity this summer. Specifically, it’s a student-led archaeological investigation of  a 16th Century Algonquian longhouse, proceeding under the attentive eyes of University of Cincinnati Anthropology and Geology professor Dr. Ken Tankersley. 

“It’s a month-long semester. It’s hands-on learning. They get to do the discovery. It’s very important for them not to spend all their time doing nothing but shoveling dirt,” he said.

It’s not all that surprising that such an excavation should be taking place where it is.


Excavators at work.

Tankersley and his students discovered the longhouse site while systematically probing what’s called the South 80 preserve; an area that has for decades been threatened by a proposed westward extension of State Route 32, which many residents of Mariemont and surrounding towns oppose. 

Tankersley previously identified a long, winding, hidden-in-plain-sight Native American earthwork — dating to an earlier period — on the bluff above the South 80. He has interpreted that earthwork to be a serpentine effigy, like Ohio’s famed Serpent Mound in Adams County, that may have been used to channel and retain rainwater for crop irrigation.

Unlike Serpent Mound, which was reconstructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, the larger Mariemont earthwork probably represents original, relatively undisturbed construction.

Tankersley has also documented a Native American burial complex, called an ossuary, at the southwestern end of that earthwork, roughly where the Mariemont Swim Club stands today.

And, over the past several summers, his student team has found in the area indigenous artifacts consistent with Ice Age-era Clovis technology, including a tell-tale, knapped flint spear point and a failed point that was “recycled” into a multi-tool that Tankersley called a “Clovis Swiss Army knife.”            

“Clovis isn’t a people. That’s what most people don’t understand. It’s a technology,” Tankersley explained. “I call it the first weapon of mass destruction, because it’s the first time a person could singlehandedly kill any animal on the planet.”

What might all those clues add up to in Mariemont? Continuous habitation, or repeated episodes of habitation, over the past 14,000 years.

“It’s here by Clovis,” Tankersley said of the site. “Mariemont is prime real estate and always has been.”

But why? What made the area so special to the historical tribes in the area (primarily, the Algonquian-speaking Shawnee, Miami, and Leni Lenape or “Delaware” peoples), as well as their ancestral Algonquian predecessors?

Practical factors.

For one, the soil on the surface of the overhanging bluff is comprised of loess — windblown, loose deposits that would have been easier to cultivate (relative to the hard, clay-rich soil of the flood plain below) with shell- and bone-derived agricultural implements known to have been used by the indigenous peoples inhabiting this area.

Secondly, it abuts the Little Miami River which, to native peoples, functioned not only as a source of fresh water, aquatic game and pottery-tempering shells, but as one superhighway in a riverine network that connected foraging, hunting and habitation sites throughout the land.

Third, large game was, at least periodically, plentiful. During the “Little Ice Age” — a sudden, extended period of global cooling that began around 1300 CE and ended in the mid-19th Century — a widespread transition from well-watered woodland vegetation to dry climate grasslands attracted buffalo to the area.    

Tankersley has discovered, via direct bone-to-bone correlation of slaughtered buffalo remains, pre-contact congress between the Mariemont (or “Madisonville,” as it’s known in the archaeological world) site and known Native American hunting grounds at Big Bone Lick, in Northern Kentucky.

The Algonquian longhouse he and his team are currently excavating in the Mariemont floodplain was likely, in his view, a seasonal habitation, with agricultural activity taking place on the loess bluff above.


An arrowhead from the site.

Just a day before Tankersley was interviewed for this article, a student discovered a small, pristinely preserved arrowhead, consistent with those used by the Ohio Valley’s historical Algonquin tribes. Flint flakes and unworked flint “cores” indicate that the people living in the longhouse were shaping their tools on the site.

Additionally, his students have unearthed shell-tempered pottery fragments, food remains (particularly, deer and bear bone fragments), post holes, and even evidence of Jesuit priests having been active in the area (via pieces of glazed Spanish terra cotta that were likely once part of a chalice).

“The Spanish [sent] Jesuits and later the French had Jesuits,” Tankersley said. “The nice thing is that the Jesuits made records of their visits.”

It may be possible to correlate the Jesuits’ documented activities with physical evidence gathered at or around the Mariemont dig, he suggested.

Ned Hollman, a third-year Archaeology major, discovered one of the post holes. A large one.

“I finally hit bottom,” he laughed, pointing at a perfectly round, 50 cm-deep excavation.

“Doc was so impressed that I found this by myself,” Hollman beamed. “He comes over and says, ‘Hm, that could be a post hole. Fill out the paperwork, start digging.’ And I started digging. And I’ve been digging for a week.”

 Antoinette Eastmond at the excavation

Antoinette Eastmond at the excavation

Antoinette Eastmond, an Archaeology senior, unearthed several gastropod shells. Algonquin people, it seems, had a taste for stewed land snails, in addition to stewed game meat, cultivated maize, hickory nuts and other forage.

Sierra Richardson, a third-year Environmental Studies major who is minoring in Anthropology, is a participant in this summer’s dig. On the day of our site visit, she’d unearthed fire-cracked limestone, indicative of cooking methods, including stone boiling and pit roasting, used by the site’s habitants.

She and the other students were also guiding a local pack of Cub Scouts — visiting the site as a field trip — in sifting excavated soil. Several of the Scouts found objects of interest and Richardson patiently explained to them what they had discovered while Tankersley maintained a watchful distance.

“From a pedagogical standpoint, it’s good experience for the students to be teachers. That’s why I walk away and let them do the teaching,” Tankersley said. “It’s just part of good service to get UC involved in the community.”

“You think about it,” he emphasized. “In this day and age, there are people who have no home. There are people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from in our own community, let alone the entire world. If this is the economic situation, then how can we justify something as esoteric as archaeology?”

 Prof. Ken Tankersley

Prof. Ken Tankersley

“This site — one of the reasons it’s so important and why it’s not esoteric — is that there were two major forces going on,” Tankersley proffered.

“One, Europeans showed up. The people living here — their immune systems could not deal with the kinds of pathogens that the Europeans were introducing. So how did people survive? That’s going on today,” he said, noting that modern air travel has made humanity more susceptible to quick-spreading pandemics, as was seen in the case of the 2008 H1N1 “swine” flu, or the 2015 Ebola crisis.

“At the same time you have European contact, these people were living in a period of rapid, profound, global climate change,” noted Tankersley. “So, literally, they were [living] at a time when the summers were very short to non-existent — shorter than they would have gotten in a productive growing season.”

Understanding the effects of such forces — whether natural or human-induced — on past populations gives present-day humans information that can be used to mitigate or avoid similar catastrophes.

“I would argue a lot of the answers to current problems are actually here in the ground,” Tankersley said, pointing toward the longhouse’s outline, where his students continued to dig.